Well this is unexpected. Here I am thinking I’d only be able to look back on David Bowie’s older albums on this site and then he goes and puts out his first record in a decade. The Next Day hit physical and digital stores today, though the album has been available to stream in full on iTunes for the last week or so. After listening to the whole thing a few times over, I’ve stumbled across another surprising fact: it’s very good. Now, you think that would go without saying, it being Bowie and all, but he honestly hasn’t put out a record this good in a long while.
As you might have noticed above, the album’s artwork is a seemingly amateurish modification/obfuscation of the iconic cover photo for Bowie’s 1977 record “Heroes.” As cheap as it seems, there is some genuine thought behind it—I don’ know if I’d call it genius, as some people online have, but after getting a feel for the album’s sound it kind of clicked. The Next Day is very much a return to the Krautrock and pre-industrial style of the first two albums of his Berlin trilogy, Low and “Heroes,” albeit with more contemporary instrumentation. This is apparent as early on as the opening song—which is also the title track—which has the same abrupt, pulsing intensity as the opener from “Heroes,” “Beauty and the Beast.” Track four, “Love Is Lost,” also features a heavily processed, vaguely mechanical drum sound akin to the one heard throughout Low.
Granted, it isn’t all gated drums and four-to-the-floor beats. Track two, “Dirty Boys,” is nice, sleazy lounge number, complete with fat, dirty sax; the album’s first single, “Where Are We Now?”, a subdued, piano-driven piece, sees Bowie reflecting on his years in Berlin; “Valentine’s Day,” which tells the story of a soon-to-be school shooter, is a vaguely ’90s alt rock piece; and one can’t help but hear some of his earlier work—say, ranging between Space Oddity and Ziggy Stardust—in “Dancing Out in Space.”
But make no mistake, the late-’70s throwback tracks are the best on the album, chief among them “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” which could have blended in easily on Lodger, Bowie’s 1979 conclusion to the Berlin trilogy. It’s hands down the best song on the record, and one I’ve had on repeat all of today and, very likely, all of next week. The previously mentioned “Love Is Lost,” a rough, plodding, despairing tune, takes a close second. Lastly, “Heat,” the record’s closer, could would have made a great inclusion on the mostly instrumental side two of Low had it been recorded in ’77.
The real star on this album is Bowie’s voice. Given his nearly half century long music career (holy shit), it goes without saying that the pitch and timbre of his vocals have changed somewhat over the years—if you don’t believe me, listen to “Space Oddity” and “Look Back in Anger” back-to-back. But rather than sounding worse for wear, his voice instead has aged like a fine wine, the former Thin White Duke hitting highs and lows seemingly with ease throughout the duration of The Next Day. I don’t know how well this next descriptor will go over with all y’all, but he sounds like a… sexy grandpa. I really don’t know a better way to put it.
So like many musicians before him, Bowie emulates some of his earlier work, but rather than try to recreate the iconic—anything from the Ziggy Stardust era, say—he goes back to the most creatively fruitful segment of his career. The final product is a genuinely rocking and enjoyable album that embraces the past without recreating it note for note and synth for synth.